​SnowJam '82 Saved My Life

Lining up in the fourth-grade carpool line every afternoon, we all prayed that it wouldn’t be Mrs. Dickson’s turn to ferry us home. She was a terrible driver—god-awful, and mean as a cottonmouth. But she did drive a 1972 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon in Nordic Blue, which was much easier than other station wagons to imagine as a spaceship; and with a vengeful 455 Rocket V-8 and squinty taillights, growled and looked just as mean as Mrs. Dickson. The Vista Cruiser had windows everywhere: a skylight above the middle row and huge, arching side windows in the back like a poor-man’s sunroof. Clearly designed to allow passengers to simulate the sensation of riding a scenic railway, blissfully taking in the passing vistas and contemplating the beauty of the American Road, The Vista Cruiser gave you a lot of options of places to look—up, to the side, out the back—anywhere but the road ahead, which Mrs. Dickson held to with great difficulty. Like every aspiring station wagon passenger-kid, you hoped that you were lucky enough to call the fold-up Death Seat in the way back, so you could look out behind you and pretend you were a tailgunner on a B-17, or not look ahead to see the road slipping out from underneath Mrs. Dickson.

By the time she pulled up to the curb on January 12, 1982, it was already early evening. Snow fell heavily in cones of light from streetlamps. It had been falling since about 2:00, when hopeful scattered flurries summoned forth childhood daydreams of animated snowmen and sledding down the buxom fairways of the public golf course. By the time school was supposed to let out at 3:30, a few inches had accumulated, along with the plans we were concocting about how we would spend the next day or two off. When the Vista rolled up not alongside but onto the curb, it was self-evident that there was no way we would be having school tomorrow.

By the next day people would be calling it “SnowJam.” We are famously incompetent at driving in winter weather, so when an unexpected snowstorm hit the city in the early afternoon, it hit hard and blind-side, and sent drivers into a panic, slip-sliding east-south. By Atlanta standards, it was a cataclysm, a bona-fide freakout. It was a big and fast surprise attack, like Herschel Walker storming over Bill Bates in Knoxville in 1980.

This would be the place to make the obligatory apologetic caveat to Northerners about how it was only a few inches and not a “real” storm. You may be right, hypothetical lake-effected Midwestern friend, but you were not riding in the back seat of Mrs. Dickson’s 1972 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser in January 1982.

It took an hour or more just to get off school property, and when we finally did reach the corner of the main road, Mrs. Dickson, exhausted and nerve-shattered, pulled the Olds over on the side of the road and threw it into park. She may have slid off and just given up, but that’s where we ended up, on the side of the road. She left the car and told us not to move an inch, while she went across the street to make a phone call. I assumed she was going to call our parents, but Mrs. Dickson was not the kind either to carry an address book or a photographic memory of telephone numbers. But that didn’t occur to any of us at the time. Years later, I learned that she called precisely no one. What she did do, while we sat stranded in the station wagon, the gently falling snow slowly flaking over the skylight on the Vista, was take the icy edge off a white-knuckled half-mile drive in an insanely overpowered vehicle—with three gin martinis.

She came back maybe an hour later, and I have no memory of the drive home—memory has a way of preserving you from things you don’t need—but somehow we made it home, all of us. For all I know the three gins may have improved Mrs. Dickson’s navigational skills; they could hardly have made them worse. In any event, it was a miracle we ever made it home. Not that any of that mattered to us; by the time we reached safe harbor, there was time only for a hot dinner and dreams of what the morning would bring, the intoxicating anticipation of an unseen landscape.

When the sun came up behind a thick cloud cover on the 13th, we awoke to a wintry playground, resplendent in blue-white light. Streets were closed off, and possibilities were everywhere. The questions we took with us to sleep found their answers: Would there be enough snow to make a snowball? Yes. Enough for a snowman? A dwarf one, maybe. Enough for Sammy Kellett to downhill ski on the big hill on Pineland Road? Oh, we’re going to find out.

It was the most improbable and sublime dispensation of grace for us kids: a snow day. And not just an iffy snow day, as if at any moment the alarms would start to sound like air raid sirens warning us that the school cancellation had been cancelled. Not this time. There was not a snowball’s chance in Atlanta that there was not going to be an all-day snow-fest the likes of which no local kid had ever seen. It was as if the entire world—especially the world of adults—had simply closed up shop for the day, all for us. It was unprecedented, epic, awesome.

And I got to watch it all through the big picture window in our living room.

I had come down with some sort of winter cold, which sidelined me for the entire powder party. Nary a snowflake for me. I drank Russian Tea and chicken broth and watched as Sammy did run after run down Pineland, my brother sled down on the Flexible Flyer, which, having been stowed in the basement for decades, was not as Flexible as it claimed. It was if it had spent its entire basement imprisonment waiting for this day. It was the greatest and most magical event in our lifetime, and I missed every last bit of it.

I had returned to health just in time to go back to school the next week, when our fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Hemphill, gave us all an assignment. We were to write an essay about our experience during the unmitigated frolicking of the previous week. This is the way it goes in the South. Snow days may be part of the routine for kids in Wisconsin, but we don’t plan the school year around winter contingencies. So if you’re going to get to sit out of school and play in the snow all day, you’re going to have to pay for it somehow. To atone for the gift of freedom we had been given, we had to pay for it by writing about it. (The school had been founded by Presbyterians, after all.) And then the next week, we were all going to read them in front of the rest of the class.

When the fated day of atonement came: a deluge of stories about snowball fights, sledding adventures, and so on. Like Gerald of Wales come back from the mythical mountains of Snowdonia, they told of fantastical creatures like snow-men, and activities otherwise unimaginable to a Southern kid. These were things that other people got to experience.

Then it was my turn. I stood up in front of the chalkboard like everyone before me had done, took a breath, and announced the title of my masterpiece: “Boring!”

The room erupted in laughter. They weren’t expecting that.

I told the story of having to sit the whole thing out, watching while my friends had the time of their lives. It was laced with the kind of sarcasm that only a fourth-grader can pull off. I had them eating out of my little 10-year-old hands. I knew then with perfect clarity that this was what I wanted to do with my life: reading my stuff in front of other people, trying to make them laugh at things they didn’t realize were funny.

But then the next 30 years happened: forgetful years in which I followed some other star. I started to come to my senses around 40, when the “Boring!” episode began to resurface more and more. It came out of hibernation like the Flexible Flyer, rusty and unused, but with a job to do: to call me back to a more basic self.

At some point, I lost the manuscript for “Boring!” It was gone by the time I was in my late teens, when I needed it the most, when I needed to be confronted with the person I was supposed to be.

I am sure that if I were to find the lost manuscript, I would be disappointed. It would not nearly be as good as I remember. We don’t preserve memories; they preserve us. It’s no longer the manuscript I need, but the memory, which took me thirty years to begin to understand.